You may have already seen the video showing a man being physically attacked in Berlin for wearing a kippah. If you haven’t, watch it here.
It shows 21-year-old Adam Armush walking in a street of the German capital with his friend and being assaulted by three young men. One of the attackers repeatedly hit Armush with his belt, while shouting “yahudi,” which is Arabic for Jew. Armush himself filmed part of the scene on his smartphone.
As the video began circulating, it triggered reactions from many Jewish and German leaders, including chancellor Angela Merkel, who said that “This is absolutely a terrible incident and we must act.” It’s the latest of a seemingly never-ending list of anti-semitic episodes in Europe. Ironically, the victim this time is not even Jewish: He is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, an Arab Israeli, who wore a kippah just to see if it’s true that walking in the streets of Europe as a Jew is dangerous. (Spoiler alert: It’s true.)
“I am surprised that something like this happened,” Armush said in an interview with the Israeli Broadcasting Corporation, Kan. “I’m still in shock.”
As I watched the video of the attack, I could not help but cringe inside. Not just because I’m Jewish, or because I was raised in Europe, or because, just like any other decent human being, I despise racism, anti-semitism, and hatred.
I cringed because I used to be that kid, with a black kippah on my head, walking around the streets of my hometown and many other European cities. Although I was lucky enough to never be physically assaulted the way Armush and many fellow victims have been, that tiny, harmless, barely visible skullcap attracted so many stares and nasty comments over the years.
Episodes of anti-semitism are common in Europe, and they usually trigger similar patterns of reaction. Jewish groups condemn them, Jewish journalists write about them, Jewish tweeters discuss what a terrible place Europe has become. This all seems to take place in a vacuum, and virtually nobody—except for a few politicians and authorities—outside the Jewish bubble is affected by the attacks, or even aware of their existence.
When some journalists report on these attacks and label them as “apparent” anti-semitic attacks (while they have video evidence of the assailant shouting “yahudi”!) they are not being helpful, either. If you’ve seen the video, you know that there was nothing “apparent” about the anti-semitism of the Berlin attack.
Europe has an anti-semitism problem, that is well-known (see: Toulouse in 2012, Brussels in 2014, Copenhagen in 2015, and so on); the incitement in some radical Muslim groups is considered to be one of the main threats for the local Jewish communities.
Now, the head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews is even advising people “against showing themselves openly with a kippah in a big-city setting in Germany, and wear a baseball cap or something else to cover their head instead.”
I was still a child when I learned that I had to be careful about walking in public with my kippah on. A startled glance was the very minimum reaction I’d get. Verbal attacks, especially in Arabic, became so frequent that my parents suggested I began hiding my kippah underneath a Nike cap. Italy is no exception; similar episodes occurred while I was in Switzerland and France, too.
When the time came for me to attend high school, I enrolled in a renowned public gymnasium. Although I felt uneasy with the idea of being the first kippah-wearing student to attend the school, I thought that, at the end of the day, it was a school, and as such it was supposed to be a safe space.
From the minute I walked inside the building, I felt scrutinized and objectified. For most of the students, I was the very first Orthodox Jew they had ever encountered. While my classmates, the teachers, and the principal were supportive and respectful, the vast majority of the student body could not avoid staring at my head every time I stepped out of my classroom and ventured in the hallways. During my senior year, I even caught a student giving me the Nazi salute.
The fact that there are certain areas of Paris, Copenhagen, and of many other European cities that religious Jews avoid, speaks volumes. And the fact that people don’t feel safe to walk around with a kippah is a shame for these cities, their inhabitants, and their mayors.
We need a greater, broader effort to protect the freedom of religion and the safety of Jewish people in the streets of Europe. Otherwise, episodes like the Berlin attack remain trapped in a bubble, and that is not a constructive answer to the problem.
Simone Somekh is a New York-based author and journalist. He’s lived and worked in Italy, Israel, and the United States.